The game is free

The game is free

I HAVE THIS MEMORY of my father showing me a clip of Pelé juggling a grapefruit when I was a boy that reminds me how simple the game really is. Like any young boy who loved to play, seeing Pelé do anything with a ball was nothing short of magical. That memory recently coincided with a scene from the movie Escape to Victory where Cpl. Luis Fernandez (Pelé) juggles a ball on his head while Captain John Colby (Michael Caine) asks, “Where’d you learn to do that?” to which Cpl. Fernandez says, “When I was a boy, in Trinidad, in the streets, with the oranges,” while continuing to juggle the ball. I immediately ran out to the orange tree in the backyard, plucked an orange from a low-hanging branch and unsuccessfully tried to juggle it like Pelé. To this day, my record of juggling an orange like a soccer ball is 12.

What’s the point of this little anecdote?

Each day I follow a routine. Part of this routine involves driving 35 miles across a state line to the office where I work. Along the way I drive by a total of three public parks, one suburban park near the town I live in and two city parks, all with an abundance of real estate and plenty of soccer fields with goals and nets. On the weekends, I often make this same drive and there’s a troubling sight. The soccer fields are devoid of anyone playing pickup games in an area known for a rich history in the sport in the United States.

This summer, I decided to drive up to the fields of each park. What I found was troubling. The suburban park had a sign that read, “Keep off the Field” and another that said, “No Play Except on Game Days”. The city parks had no such signs but we still left vacant. Keep off the field? No play except on game days? Over the summer months, when kids are out of school and seemingly have more free time, I visited these parks again and still found them empty. Other areas of both the suburban and city parks were bustling with people playing recreational games of gridiron football and the basketball courts accommodated recreational basketball games.

On occasions, I visit where I grew up; the same park pitches I used to frequent after school now sit empty. However, it was not always this way. In the last 10-15 years, pickup soccer has become a lost game. Whether it was Jumpers for Goalposts in the park or a game my friends and I played called Three Bar (a common game in pickup ice hockey), most of the hours previous generations accumulated in the game were outside of structured games and training sessions.

The reality is the hours spent at practice are simply not enough for maximum improvement. What else has changed is the value placed on pickup soccer. We exist in a time where one could argue that too much infrastructure is in place. Suburban players typically do not partake in pickup games for a variety of reasons, including technology and parental interference. According to the American Accreditation HealthCare Commission, most American kids spend about three hours a day watching television with additional “screen time” accumulation through tablets, computers, and smartphones. The finding states that all types of screen time can total five to seven hours a day. In addition to the time lost, kids are more apt to eat junk food during these hours. Lethargy and extended periods of sedentary time have become a lifestyle.

The next contributing factor is the community. Parks that have signs up prohibiting people from playing on the fields is problematic, but not out of the realm of understanding. Facilities managers want to maintain the condition of the fields, nets, and goals. Signs with “Keep Off” emblazoned on in bold lettering send a message that parks have become places where playing is viewed as prohibitive.

Next on the list of culprits are parents. Parents are guilty of competing with one another and using their children as leverage. The result is a type of systemic parental competition where parents over-schedule activities for their kids in an attempt to reinforce the assertion that their child is the most talented and well-rounded of the bunch. The over-involvement in so many activities has resulted in a generation of exhausted, robotic, and unmotivated kids that have grown up needing constant prompting.

For players in more urban environments, access to safe places to play is a problem. In a recent blog post titled “Small Space, Big Impact” by Jim Hannesschlager, Grants Coordinator for the U.S. Soccer Foundation, an organisation that aims “to enhance, assist and grow the sport of soccer in the United States, with special emphasis on underserved communities”, he addressed the topic of the lack of soccer-dedicated courts and settings. In the short post, he took feedback from both new and experienced coaches in addition to players who cited “facilities are hard to come by and that a small, intimate, soccer-specific space is the perfect forum for youth to participate, grow, and fall in love with the game. The U.S. Soccer Foundation’s Mini Pitch Initiative is set up to enhance, assist, and grow the beautiful game in places it has traditionally struggled. Whether you want to call it a soccer court, a mini pitch, futsal, or 5-aside, we are all speaking the same language – creating safe places to play the game in a soccer-specific venue.”

In sport, music, art, or any dedicated discipline, however, the main onus should be on the participant. Aside from the by-products of a technology-addicted, over-scheduled society, a player who sees soccer as a chore is a player who has most likely only played in “controlled environments”. Good players play with an eye to get better next time whereas great players play with an eye to get better every time. To be candid, youth players today are more likely to pick up their smartphones than a soccer ball after school or at the weekend. Part of what separated the good players from the great players I played with and against was the additional work they put into their craft. And most of those players excelled academically as well as athletically because they eliminated distractions. The simplicity of the solution is astounding, but the complexity of the problem is even more remarkable.

I recently called ten coaches from various clubs and high schools of varying ages and talent levels to gain some perspective on the current state of coaching. We discussed the upcoming season and the expectations and goals for their teams. In each conversation I made sure I asked this poignant question: “How many hours a week do the players spend playing with the club (or school) each week?”  The answers surprised me. The four high school environments were comprised of two public schools and two private schools, with three boys’ teams and one girls’ team. All four coaches held training sessions lasting 90 minutes to two hours on four days (immediately after school) with two 80 minute-games a week. On the high end, players are in a “controlled environment” for around 10 hours and 40 minutes.

At academy clubs in four states, each in a different region of the U.S., I asked the same question. Each club coach said he followed the U.S. Soccer Development Academy guideline of four mandatory training sessions weekly extended across a 10-month season with approximately 30 games. The average time players spent in the “controlled environment” for the academy was around 12-13 hours a week. One added caveat was, per U.S. Development Academy rules, players must abide by the “No outside participation for full-time Academy players”-rule each club reinforced. The last two clubs were admittedly recreational with a lower level of play and more inclusive setting for the U11-U13 (boys) age range. These coaches held two practices a week lasting 90 minutes with one game on the weekend where everyone received playing time. These players spent around five hours with their clubs.

In comparison with top players in Europe and South America in particular, the actual applied hours spent playing the game in a controlled environment was considerably less in the U.S. environments. At established South American clubs such as Gremio, Fluminense, and Corinthians in Brazil as well as Boca Juniors in Argentina, players typically train twice a week until the age of 15 when they join a residency program (provided they are good enough) allowing them to train five days a week for around three hours a day. At famed academies in the Netherlands, most notably De Toekomst (Ajax) and Varkenoord (Feyenoord), and in Germany (Borussia Dortmund), a similar system exists to ramp up the hours young players have in the controlled environments. For young players in these elite academies the quality and intensity of the training is not comparable to the teams of coaches I spoke with whatsoever.

But there is a bigger differentiator at play here than elite academy structures — free play. In strong footballing nations, most players get a large percentage of their dedicated hours in on their own across the talent spectrum. Prospective professionals and average players partake in pickup games in community parks, in city centers and football cages to get supplemental training. The best academy products are seldom born with the mercurial gifts of Lionel Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo. Most great players dedicated hours to playing the game without the constructs and oversight of coaches outside of their dedicated training in a controlled environment. Free play and pickup games teach players to be creative and tough.

The story of Raheem Sterling’s discovery in the book The Nowhere Men by Michael Calvin details the magnitude pickup games had in Sterling’s development prior to and during his time with Queens Park Rangers’ Centre of Excellence. Along with allowing time for intense repetition training (10,000 touches), it forces players to improvise and augment their own training approach. It is no secret that free play creates better leaders and eliminates coach-induced pressures that affect player performance. This environment helps players identify who they are as individuals away from label-heavy team settings.

The Tahuichi Academy is located in Santa Cruz, Bolivia. Santa Cruz suffers from drug-related criminal activity in addition to high crime rates and many of the players at the academy aim to use soccer as a way out. Tahuichi is everything that a conventional academy is not. There are no nice practice pitches. Instead, players train on dusty and bumpy pitches daily. Products of Tahuichi’s academy use the poor playing conditions to great effect and the result is the development of players with a deft first touch and supreme ball control. Players run through streams and up sand dunes to build strength. Much of the equipment is secondhand and donated. The approach is minimalist, but the results are extraordinary.

In my life, I have played against Tahuichi teams in Europe three times and found their teams to be some of the toughest, fittest, and most skilled opponents I played against on European soil. And the players were humble and reserved. Most moments of free time I spent in the company of these players was enjoyed playing pickup games with players from other teams. Perhaps these players with no material goods or money to their names had a richer understanding of the essence of the game.

The current generation of players has more access to the game than any previous one, and yet that game remains on the screens of their televisions and smartphones. The heads of established professional leagues, Development Academy club teams, and the federations themselves, do not seem to recognize that over-coaching creates under-developed players. We are at a crossroads where the sport is growing but the parks remain vacant. Street soccer is still so niche in the United States – and possibly Great Britain – that it might as well be non-existent.

Players exposed to street soccer or playing enough pickup games remain an anomaly. The US Development Academy stresses that players can take part in no outside participation other than activities with the Academy team which sets a precedent that the hours in a controlled environment are sufficient. The current generation of young players has to be weaned off the need for constant praise from parents and coaches. Instead, they need to covet self-approval and reaffirmation of their own need to improve without the dependence of “needing” a coach. In providing seemingly everything to kids, society has stripped away their creativity, self-motivation, and willingness to put the extra hours in through continued and sustained pampering.

The call to action is a simple one. We can do more with less. For some reason, the sport here is largely treated as an overly-organised sport whereas the rest of the world regards it as a lifestyle. Organised soccer will continue to drive the direction of the game, but the games largely exists outside this organised structure even if people fail to realise this.

What is perplexing is how little the pickup game is valued by this generation and how little free play is valued by high profile coaches. Most coaches, whether it’s intentional or not, become the active participant in each drill. Many a training session is filled with “rehearsed” phrases and constant on-the-fly critiques and instructions that players begin to frame training with a chore. The current crop of coaches can say so much more by saying very little. The game is meant to be played freely.

There is a time and place for organised soccer, but if that is all players play, then enjoyment, creativity, leadership, and fun will have to be “coached” into players going forward instead of being developed organically.

By Jon Townsend. Follow @jon_townsend3

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